A New Complication in Determining Time Since Death?

In the last few weeks, a few forensics stories have broken, each taking an odd angle on what has previously been considered a tried and true forensic practice. We’re going to look at the first of these stories today.

Determining time since death in an unwitnessed death is a crucial part of any investigation, especially if the death is suspicious. In order to obtain an alibi, investigators need to know approximately when the death occurred so they can determine a suspect’s whereabouts at that specific time.

There are multiple ways to determine recent time since death, including the extent of rigor mortis (the stiffening of the body’s muscles up to approximately 12 hours after death), lividity (the settling and pooling of blood due to gravity), and a decrease in body temperature.

The human body normally functions at 37oC/98.6oF, but after death, with the body’s process of homeostasis interrupted, the body will cool until it reaches the temperature of its surroundings. By and large, the body will cool at a rate of approximately 2oC/3.6oF for the first hour postmortem, and then 1oC/1.8oF thereafter until it reaches ambient temperature. But there are a host of other complicating factors including extreme ambient temperatures, body position, whether it is clothed, humidity levels, fat content of the body, thermal conductivity of the surface beneath the body, and any disease that might raise the body’s resting temperature at the time of death. It’s a complicated set of conditions, but the key factor is that normally a body only cools; it doesn’t warm up after death.

An interesting paper was recently published in the Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology detailing a case of postmortem hyperthermia—a rare occurrence where the body temperature actually rises after death. The research team followed the case of a man who died in a Czech Republic hospital from heart failure. Hospital protocol required the deceased remain on the ward for two hours after death. An hour following death, as hospital staff started to prepare the body for transport in another hour, they noticed that the body was radiating heat and started to monitor temperature. An hour and a half after death, the body hit a maximum temperature of 40.1oC/104.2oF. Four hours following death, the body was still above normal at 37.6oC/99.7oF, but it then continued to cool as expected.

The ramifications of postmortem hyperthermia are clear—if it happened following a suspicious death, it would offset the time since death estimation by a number of hours (in this case, approximately 4 hours). For instance, if a murder happened at midnight, the person found dead at 6am might be assumed to have been alive until 4am. This could have serious repercussions as the killer could have a watertight alibi for four hours after the actual time of the murder, and the window of time around the murder itself would never be questioned. Currently, there is no way to predict this drastic postmortem change in body temperature, but researchers are trying to identify circumstances that might lead to this reverse temperature cascade.

Several causes for postmortem hyperthermia have been raised. Intoxication or drug overdoses may cause it. Violent deaths leading to brain trauma giving rise to cerebral oxygen deprivation or asphyxiation can be responsible. Low voltage current electrocution, heart attack, fever, or cancer can all result in hyperthermia at the time of death which could be mistaken for postmortem hyperthermia. Researchers hope to study more cases to be able to provide additional reasons for this often mysterious condition.

So where does this leave investigators? Should they question every time since death estimate? Postmortem hyperthermia certainly raises the argument that multiple metrics are required to inform investigators of an accurate time since death. Using other physical factors is the only way to ensure that in the absence of a witness, the accurate time of a suspicious death is established, giving investigators their best chance to find the individual responsible.

Of course, the author in me automatically thought this would be a great way to muddy the waters in a fictional murder investigation. Food for thought, mystery author buddies... :)

The Privilege of Authorial Control

'Truth' by Walter Seymour Allward, the Supreme Court of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario

Ann and I are currently in the research stage of our new FBI K-9 book (#3!) and are just about to start outlining. We’re right on schedule to be writing by May 1st, aiming for a completed draft by the end of July.

I had an interesting conversation with my mother yesterday. Mom has been a bit laid up with a bum knee lately that has required more of my time than usual making sure that she could manage meals etc. Mom, in turn, has been more on top of my writing than usual, making sure that I’m staying on schedule. So, she knows more about the direction of this book than she usually does at this stage. Some of the research I’ve been doing for this book is, frankly, hard. It’s difficult material, highlighting a darker side of society, one I’ve never had any experience with personally. When we were talking about it yesterday, Mom commented on some of the movies my older brother has considered (Mychael Danna, composer for movies such as Life of Pi, Moneyball, Capote, and others), and how he’d turned some of them down when the content was particularly brutal, especially when the movie portrayed a true story.

It made me realize that I have a level of control in my art that isn’t possible in his. Yes, his music gives his movies a punch that is sometimes conveyed more emotionally than the written word, but he has no control over the story. His film compositions are strictly reactive—he scores the combined vision of the writer and the director. Conversely, authors are proactive—the story is literally in our hands.

'Justice' by Walter Seymour Allward, the Supreme Court of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario

It made me realize how lucky I am. In a world which seems increasingly uncertain and where the common person has basically no control—i.e. the current chaos in America, as well as the looming specters of Russia, Syria, North Korea—writing allows an author the privilege of being in charge. So, when my mother commented on the darkness of that major aspect of the storyline, my response was that we would have the satisfaction of seeing justice done and of good trouncing evil. Honestly, there’s enough bad in the world that I don’t need to come out of a book feeling even more downtrodden (and I’m sure other readers feel the same), let alone immersing myself in that kind of storyline for months while I’m writing it. So, we get the luxury of seeing the kind of justice we’d like to see in the world if it were a more perfect place. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a straight plot line, or that the characters will have an easy time of it—where's the fun in that?—but that just makes the win at the end that much more satisfying. It certainly is a known fact that reading tastes tend to change depending on the political/world climate. Most of the time dystopian fiction tends to flourish when the world monetary markets are stable. However, interestingly, as the American government has moved to a more authoritarian stance, dystopian novels such as 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale have become more relevant and popular as readers are looking for parallels between the current administration and their world, and these fictional dystopian worlds of yesterday.

Where do you stand on it? Are you finding your own reading habits leaning in the direction of happier endings right now because just watching the news is enough to give you a stress-related ulcer? Or do you find comfort and relevance in dystopian worlds as we try to navigate through the uncertainty of our own times?

Photo credit: D. Gordon E. Robertson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9441090/ https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9441019

‘After the Plague’ – A Medieval Reconstruction

Last week we talked about how looking at past catastrophic plagues could help us prepare for a future plague. This week, we look at research done by the University of Cambridge examining medieval life following the Black Death in the 14th century. In a four-year project funded by the Wellcome Trust—the world's largest medical research charity funding research into human and animal health— their study ‘After the plague: health and history in medieval Cambridge’ cites skeletal evidence as well as DNA sequencing and isotopes to explain the health, life, and death among the poor of 14th century Cambridge. Dr. John Robb, a member of the University of Cambridge’s archeology and anthropology department, notes that there is a dearth of knowledge about the poor in medieval England as the majority of record keeping, and therefore study, has centered on the royalty and upper classes, specifically around the ownership of land .

Following the discovery of a burial ground during a renovation of the Old Divinity School of St. John’s College at Cambridge, Robb and his colleagues recovered over 400 complete skeletons from 1300 burials excavated between 2010 and 2012. The remains all date from between 1200–1400 CE and were buried in the cemetery belonging to the Hospital of Saint John the Evangelist, which stood across from the cemetery until its demolition in 1511. The hospital’s mission was to care for ‘poor scholars and other wretched persons’ which likely explains why the overwhelming majority of the remains recovered are those of men and included only a few women and children. But the poverty of the inhabitants is obvious from the burials themselves—no coffins, few bodies were shrouded, and there are almost no grave goods included with the burials. These were poor people indeed. However, researchers do not believe these were plague deaths, further strengthening the idea that the hospital cared for the poor and infirm, rather than the sick and dying.

Context 958, found in an unusual face-down burial position

Context 958, found in an unusual face-down burial position

Scientists have focused on a single set of remains for more detailed examination. Given the uninteresting name of Context 958, the skeletal remains tell the story of a life of poverty and struggle. He was male and lived between 40 and 70 years (this range surprised me; between the skull sutures and the pubic symphysis, they should have been able to narrow the range from there, which indicates some skeletal weathering to me). He had fine lines in the enamel of his teeth, indicating growth interruptions due to two separate famines while he was a child. He showed additional dental disease leading to an abscess, several cavities, and a number of missing teeth. He was taller than most of his 14th century counterparts and isotope analysis of his bones illustrated a diet enriched with both meat and fish. This is quite unusual in the poorer classes of the time, who consumed mostly a grain-based diet, suggesting one of two explanations: he died and was buried below his station, or, more likely, he was involved in food trade around the university and had access to food above his station. His skeleton showed robust muscle attachments indicating a muscular build and a life of labour, also supported by significant wear in his vertebrae. He had several healed fractures: a lumbar vertebra, a rib, and a depression fracture at the back of his skull that left him with a permanent dent and likely a significant concussion. He also showed signs of gout.

But Context 958 really came to life when the University of Dundee joined the project to build a facial reconstruction. The University of Dundee is well-known for having reconstructed the face of Richard III following the discovery of his remains. In this instance, they did a virtual 3D reconstruction of the skull of Context 958 leading to an amazingly life-like image of the face of a man dead for 800 years.

Project researchers hope that they will be able to build significantly on knowledge of the time, not only for Cambridge’s urban poor, but for all of England, telling the story of not just the rich and successful, but of the common folk who were the base of England’s prosperity and success.

Photo credit: University of Cambridge

Puzzles in the Pattern of Plague

This past weekend, my husband and I attended a lecture at my university on ‘Puzzles in the Pattern of Plague’. Being an infectious diseases specialist in my day job, and having talked about plague a number of times on the blog, the topic really caught my attention. As my husband is also a science geek, he good naturedly tagged along.

The talk was about using mathematical modeling of historic plagues to be able to predict future epidemics. And before you starting thinking Ugh, math… it was a very down to earth talk without a smidge of calculus (though you know for a fact that this kind of modelling overflows with calculus in the background), so it was fascinating from both a historical and scientific viewpoint. We’ll come back to a modern standpoint at the end as we touch on SARS and what the outbreak in 2003 might have meant for humanity.

Dr. David Earn, a mathematician at McMaster University, was the evening’s speaker. He focused on plague—bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic—with an emphasis on the Great Plague of London from 1665.

There have been multiple waves of plague over the past two millennia:

  • Justinian, starting in 541CE and lasting 200 years.
  • Black Death (which includes the Great Plague of London), originating in China in 1334 and lasting more than 350 years, finally ending in the late 1600’s after killing over 60% of Europeans.
  • Modern plague, which started in China in 1860 before spreading to kill 2–10 million worldwide, but which finally enabled scientists of the day to isolate the responsible bacterial agent, Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis).

There are three main forms of plague known to modern man:

  • Bubonic plague—an infection of the lymphatic system by Y. pestis leading to swollen lymph nodes, or buboes. If untreated (as it was historically), the death rate is approximately 66%. Treated with modern antibiotics, the death rate is approximately 11%.
  • Pneumonic plague—a Y. pestis infection that spreads to the lungs resulting in pneumonia. Untreated, the death rate approximates 100%. Surprisingly, even with modern antibiotics, the death rate is still nearly 100%. This is the kind of plague that defense experts worry about as a bioterrorism threat. There is a vaccine, but it is extremely inefficient.
  • Septicemic plague—a Y. pestis infection which enters and spreads via the circulatory system leading to blackened and gangrenous extremities. The death rate from septicemic plague falls between that of bubonic and pneumonic plagues, but tends to approximate that of pneumonic plague even with modern treatment.

When it comes to identifying the type of plague through the ages, historians have no choice but to fall back on records of the time, which are often vague, and mostly date after the Justinian plague. However, it is clear that at least part of the second wave of plague was likely partially septicemic since it was known at the time as the Black Death, a reference to the black fingers and toes resulting from the systemic infection.

Considering the differences in plague properties, how can we be sure that the Justinian, Black Death, and modern plagues were caused by the same modern Y. pestis agent? Another McMaster researcher, Dr. Hendrik Poinar, has sequenced ancient DNA found in plague victims from both of these epidemics and has confirmed that Y. pestis was responsible for both.

So how does mathematical modelling help us use plagues of the past to possibly save us during a plague of the future? Information is power, and, in this case, knowledge of previous pandemics can help us design better control strategies for the next pandemic. This paradigm could instruct future scientists and healthcare professionals how to interrupt an epidemic just as it starts, possibly saving millions of lives in the process.

Toward this end, Dr. Earn and his students examined the Great Plague of London of 1665. They went back to the weekly bills of mortality published during that time period to collect large scale data. This is a written record of not only all the deaths broken down by cause, but also where within the 130 parishes the deaths occurred, and exactly how many were caused by plague. Based on this data, they were able to show in great detail how the plague ripped through London during the summer of 1665 and then simmered for the next year before finally disappearing at the end of 1666 following the Great Fire of London. The plague was mostly gone by the time of the fire, but actually continued for several more months, so the fire didn’t contribute to its disappearance.

London weekly mortality register, September 12 – 17, 1665 (click for a larger version)

Mathematicians use the susceptible/infectious/removed (SIR) model to infer transmission and recovery rates during an epidemic. In the SIR model

  • S = susceptible, the number of people who could be infected.
  • I = infectious, those who are infected and are capable of passing on the pathogen.
  • R = removed, those who have either recovered and are now immune, or who have died. In either case, these are the people who are now taken out of the susceptible population.

Using this SIR model, R0, the reproduction number (how contagious a pathogen is) is calculated. R0 essentially describes how many secondary cases can arise from a single primary disease case. If one sick person can spread disease to only one other person, then R0 = 1. If, on average, the disease spreads to 2 people, then R0 = 2 etc. For disease to spread through a population, R0 must be greater than zero, or there is not enough transmission to maintain the epidemic. To put this in perspective, influenza R0 = 1.5–3 and measles R0 = 17 (so get your kids vaccinated, parents! With an R0 like that, herd vaccination will only take you so far…).

Dr. Earn was able to calculate the difference between Black Death plague as it spread from Asia and through Europe in the following years: 1348, 1361, 1375, 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625, and 1665. What they found was that the R0 for plague actually rose over the centuries with an R0 = 1.1 in 1348 and an R0 = 1.5 in 1665. That translated to only 20% infection in the 14th century, but 50% infection in 1665 by the numbers. But they had to make one major assumption for this calculation: that the transmission rate in the second plague pandemic was similar to modern plague and the modern bacteria that scientists have studied. And knowing the historic death rates, Dr. Earn knew that assumption had to be incorrect since over 60% of the population was infected.

So what could account for this difference? And why did the plague spread nearly twice as fast in the 16th century, compared to the 14th century? We’ll never know for sure, but several possibilities exist:

  • The pathogen itself may have changed and become stronger through mutations that were later lost when they no longer conveyed a survival advantage.
  • Population density likely played a role as people started to live in dense clusters with close contact inside city walls.
  • Climate change of the time also played a role, as the Little Ice Age occurred between 1300–1850 in Europe.
  • What form of plague dominated at the time since bubonic had a much higher survival rate than either the septicemic or pneumonic variants.

So how does this information serve us in modern times? Dr. Earn cited the SARS pandemic of 2003 as an example. In Canada, we had 250 infections, from which 50 patients died, so a 20% mortality rate (which is quite severe in modern times with modern drugs). Worldwide, over 8,000 people were infected with 774 eventual deaths. However this pandemic could have been much worse but for a number of factors. China, the original location of the outbreak, reacted very quickly, and used extreme isolation of anyone diagnosed with SARS or who had come into contact with it. It spread through air travel to limited locations, with Canada being the next worst hit. I remember the SARS pandemic very clearly as our lab was located in the university hospital and coming to work every day included extremely long lines, written questionnaires, one-on-one health screening, and a single monitored entrance through the parking garage. But it was procedures like patient isolation and absolute dedication to stopping spread that halted the pandemic in its tracks and no infection has been seen since 2004. However, Dr. Earn calculated the SARS R0 = 2, which would have led to a 50% infection rate. In his estimation, had we not been able to control the outbreak, it would have quickly gone worldwide with over one billion dead. Simply stated, it would have changed the course of human history just as the 14th centuryplague changed the course of history after killing 50 million, just over half the population.

So this research is critically important. Mathematical models show that even if there had been a plague vaccine during the Great Plague of London that only protected 5% of the population, it would have made a significant change to the transmission curve and millions would have been saved. Using these tools, mathematicians will be able to assist during pathogen outbreaks as healthcare professionals are making decisions around treatment and vaccination and how to best protect the population and save the most lives. I’ve said for years that the bugs are going to win someday, but tools like this could stave off that fate.

Interested in more of what Dr. Earn and his team do? He gave a TEDx talk a few years ago, and this clip shows some of the fascinating animations he showed us last night about the spread of the Great Plague through the burrows of London:

Excavating the Old North Church – Looking Ahead

In 2023, Christ Church in Boston—better known as the Old North Church—will celebrate its 300th anniversary. Last week, we revisited the Old North as it exists in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries and our reasons for setting part of the story in its basement crypts. That excavation is strictly fictional, but a real excavation was recently completed in those same crypts.

In advance of planned celebrations around the tricentennial, an eleven million dollar campaign will fund major restorations around the church and within the crypts where brick is crumbling, and the locks and plaster that have sealed the tombs for centuries are disintegrating. In addition,  massive metal pipes run through the extremely damp basement walkways, part of an early twentieth century fire prevention system. I took the picture to the right during my first tour of the crypts in 2009. The bottommost pipe crossing the walkway is only four feet above the floor, forcing visitors to scramble underneath to continue their journey through the crypts.

To make the crypts more visitor friendly, the crypt floor will be dropped eighteen inches and the existing metal pipes will be moved. Additionally, a dehumidification system will be installed to make the crypts a drier, warmer environment. However, a sermon in the church’s records from the late 1800s indicated a body buried beneath the walkways surrounding the crypts. If human remains are found during the upcoming renovations, then all work would be halted until the remains could be carefully and respectfully removed. To avoid any work slowdowns, the Boston Archeology Program started a trail dig, specially looking for human remains.

They excavated four units, one in each of the four hallways of the main crypt. Each unit was approximately four feet square and was excavated down to a depth of two feet, as that is the extent of the future renovation. While no human remains were found, a selection of other artefacts were recovered: rat bones, a coffin handle, stoneware shards, burial shroud pins, and a brick and shale floor drain.

With this project complete, the crypt renovations can now move forward. After the renovations are complete, if you have a chance to see the Old North Church, I’d highly recommend visiting this wonderful piece of history for both the church proper (including the bell tower) and the crypts. And this might just be the excuse I need for tour #3. The other two tours were fantastic, but being able to see the crypts without the acrobatics of climbing around pipes would definitely be worth another visit!

Photo credit: Boston Archeology and Jen Danna

Excavating the Old North Church – Looking Back

Tomb 3 marker.

Tomb 3 marker.

Tomb 9, under the front door of the church.

Tomb 9, under the front door of the church.

Christ Church—better known as Boston’s Old North Church—has played a role in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, literally since the very first scene. When we were doing character planning, we needed a project for Dr. Matt Lowell to work on in his role as an active researcher within the field of forensic anthropology at Boston University. We knew about the Old North’s historic crypts and thought this would be a great place to set Matt’s project.

In September 2009, when I travelled to Boston for my first research trip, I met with Reverend Stephen Ayers who not only took me on a personal tour of the crypts (which at the time were closed to the public), but shared with me all current research on the site. It was then that I learned about the charnel house in the corner of the basement that contained approximately one thousand sets of the church’s oldest remains.

The first of the burials in the basement crypts of Christ Church took place in 1723. However, by 1836, the existing 34 crypts were insufficient to handle incoming burials. A small wing was constructed attached to the back corner of the church, and three new tombs—numbers 35, 36, and 37—were planned. However, it was decided concurrently to clear out the older crypts, allowing them to be reused. In 1845, they took advantage of the construction of tomb 37 to create a charnel house below it. It is the same dimensions as tomb 37, but is sunk eight feet beneath the current tomb floor. They transferred all the oldest remains into this pit, and then sealed the charnel house, later filling tomb 37 above it.

Plans for the Old North tombs – 1820.

Plans for the Old North tombs – 1820.

The church recognized the desire by Bostonians to be interred within the walls of the Old North, even though the crypts were closed in 1860 due to health concerns about burying the dead within the populated city limits of the north end. To meet this need, they constructed a modern columbarium in 1992 to accept the ashes of those wishing to be buried in the Old North crypts. However, so do so, they built around the three last tombs, enclosing tombs 35, 36, and 37, including the charnel house. In her paper, Of the Lonely Belfry and the Dead: An Historical and Archaeological Study of the Burial Crypts of Boston's Old North Church, Jane Lyden Rousseau outlines the history of the crypts and the sealing of the columbarium. Reverend Ayers discussed the possibility of obtaining the funds to excavate the charnel house, but this would have to be done around the existing columbarium and without disturbing the modern remains. Given the extra complexity of such an excavation now, whether this will be possible someday remains to be seen.

Prior to building the Old North columbarium in 1992. Tombs 35 and 36 are on the far left. Tomb 37 is on the far right.

Prior to building the Old North columbarium in 1992. Tombs 35 and 36 are on the far left. Tomb 37 is on the far right.

The Old North columbarium. Tomb 35 is located behind the niches on the far right side of the columbarium; tomb 37 is behind the niches in the foreground, right side.

The Old North columbarium. Tomb 35 is located behind the niches on the far right side of the columbarium; tomb 37 is behind the niches in the foreground, right side.

But we saw the charnel house as an opportunity to give Matt the perfect project in his field in the city he loves. So we changed the layout of the columbarium slightly, eliminating one wall of niches, allowing Matt and his team of grad students—Kiko, Paul and Juka—access to the remains. And when Trooper Leigh Abbott meets Matt for the first time, this is where she finds him.

Leigh stopped at the bottom of the stairs, the large area under the church sanctuary spreading before her. Through the doorway opposite, a long corridor stretched away into the gloom that shaded the far reaches of the space, dimly lit by the few exposed light bulbs that hung from the ceiling. There, long held safe in the quiet darkness and forgotten by all but a scarce few, were the oldest crypts in Boston.

Standing in the nearly silent basement, with only the creaks from the floorboards overhead betraying the presence of the funeral mourners, the centuries of history entombed in this building surrounded her, just like the dead sleeping inside the aged brick walls.

The vicar’s words rang in her head. You’ll find him if you go down the stairs and turn right into the columbarium.

The atmosphere changed the moment she stepped over the threshold. The basement and the crypts were cold and damp, but even surrounded by walls of modern burial niches, the columbarium seemed warm and inviting. A space where the living could feel closer to the dead who had gone before them.

Mournful music filtered through the floorboards into this quiet room of remembrance.

It felt . . . peaceful.

The peace was abruptly shattered by the clatter of something solid falling to the floor followed by a soft curse.

There he is.

On the far side of the room, a door opened into a small chamber. A doorway was cut into one of the whitewashed chamber walls, bright russet clay revealed at the entrance. Moving to stand in the gap, she looked into the tomb, staring in shock at the chaos within while breathing air musty with centuries of undisturbed stillness.

Rotting wooden boxes of different shapes and sizes were stacked haphazardly along the walls. Many of the boxes had collapsed, their lids loosened and their contents spilled out over other boxes and across the floor. Bones of every size and description lay in tangled piles, mixed with funeral ornaments and remnants of moldering cloth. A solitary skull grinned up at her from where it lay tipped against the cracked side of a crumpled box.

A movement to her left drew her attention and her gaze shifted to the man kneeling with his back partially turned to her. He bent over the pile of debris, freeing a single bone before transferring it carefully in his gloved hands to a clear plastic tub on the floor beside him.

We wrote the charnel house based on similar ossuaries found in Britain and described by Ms. Rousseau in Of the Lonely Belfry and the Dead. Someday, if Reverend Ayers and interested archeologists get their wish, they may find out exactly what treasures are contained within the charnel house.

But, on the short term, a real-life excavation has just begun in the basement of the Old North, in the main block of crypts under the church sanctuary. Next week, we’ll be back to talk about the exciting dig Boston’s City Archeology Program recently launched.

Photo credit: Jane Rousseau and Jen Danna

Canine DNA Profiling

Ann and I are back to blogging now, but we're also shifting back into more forensics-related posts as we're moving toward the release of LAMENT THE COMMON BONES, book five in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries. Today, we're looking at a topic that spans our two series as we examine the forensic technique which recently saved the life of a service K-9.

DNA profiling has been used in law enforcement, medical examiners, and archeologists for humans for decades. DNA is used for profiling both victims and suspects in crimes, for identifying the dead after mass disasters, and tracing family lineages through mitochondrial DNA. But the same techniques can be used for other species.

Recently a case came to light of a Belgian Malinois service dog named Jeb who was sentence to be destroyed after he was convicted of killing a neighbour’s dog, Vlad. He was not actually witnessed killing the 16-pound Pomeranian, but he was found by the late dog’s owner standing over the body of the dead dog. While not definitive, it certainly didn’t look good for Jeb. He was taken into custody by Animal Control and a judge was appointed to hear the case. After hearing testimony, including how the neighbour was scared by the large dog because ‘he always barked’, the judge made the reluctant decision to designate Jeb as a ‘dangerous animal’. As a result, he had no choice but to call for the dog’s death.

However the owners, Penny and Kenneth Job, never believed for a moment that their dog was capable of such a violent act. They had adopted Jeb after he’d been rescued as an abandoned pup in Detroit by their daughter, Kandie Morrison. Morrison worked for a local rescue group, but quickly recognized that the young Malinois would make an excellent service dog for her father, as United State Air Force veteran with Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a neurodegenerative disease. With the help of a local veterinarian, Jeb was trained into a gentle, dependable service dog to help support Ken Job and to be there for him if he falls.

The accusation of Jeb being the cause of Vlad’s death didn’t make sense to the Jobs. This simply wasn’t the dog they knew and who lived with three dogs and seven cats in complete peace. Rather than simply taking the heartbreaking news at face value, they took matters into their own hands. While they had previously believed Vlad had been cremated following the investigation, they discovered during the course of the trial that his body was instead frozen. They had argued during the trial that a stray dog had been seen in the area around the time of the killing, and the area was populated with wild foxes, but now they had a chance to scientifically prove Jeb’s innocence. They swabbed the inside of his cheek and arranged for samples to be taken from Vlad’s wounds for comparison at the Maples Center for Forensic Medicine at the University of Florida College of Medicine.

The Jobs were thrilled when the results came back vindicating their dog. Yes, Vlad has been killed by a dog, but not by Jeb. Shortly after, Jeb was released and returned to his loving family and crucially important life of service. DNA had proven his innocence, exonerating him just as it can exonerate innocent human convicts.

DNA analysis is not a regular part of canine cases, even those that call for the destruction of an animal. But the $460 spent by the Jobs definitely decided the case and saved the life of their beloved pet and helpmate. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about animal cases in the same light—when a life hangs in the balance, isn’t it worth ensuring that justice is being done? $460 doesn’t seem like that high a price to pay to avoid an innocent paying for a crime he didn’t commit.

Photo credit: CNN

Report From The Writing Trenches – March 2017

We’re back! *waves* We’ve been away from regular blogging for much too long, but we’ve been working hard in the meantime and had to keep our heads down while revising several manuscripts and planning for a few more books. So next week will be a normal Skeleton Keys post, but this week we’ll fill you in on what we’ve been up to.

FBI K-9s: Just before we went on hiatus, we were able to show you our stunning new cover for BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE. Since then, we’ve done a full developmental edit with our fabulous new editor, Esi Sogah, who suggested some really solid changes for the book that made it so much better. And then over the past few weeks, we completed the copy edit of the manuscript. So now, with the exception of the galley proof, BEFORE is in the bag. We’ll be looking at early reader copies going out in late July and then the book releases on September 26th.

This means we’re turning our attention to book 3 in the series and its deadline on December 1st for a 2018 release. We took the time to really look at the idea we had for this book originally, and had some concerns which we brought to Esi. The idea was solid, but now, after writing LONE WOLF and BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE, we realized we had a problem with the outline for book 3—set on the west coast, it was too isolating. Especially after book 2, Meg and Hawk have amassed a tight ensemble of supporting characters: her sister Cara, Washington Post reporter Clay McCord, Washington DC firefighter/paramedic Todd Webb, and fellow FBI personnel including team members Brian Foster and his German shepherd Lacey, Lauren Wycliffe and her border collie Rocco, and the newly introduced Scott Park and his bloodhound Theo. In moving the storyline to the west coast, some of this group might appear in the book, but most would not. As a result, we didn’t think it would work, so we put our heads together with Esi and came up with a new idea that would allow us to involve everyone in the case. Research is already started and we’ll be jumping into real story planning shortly and will be drafting by mid-April to early May.

Abbott and Lowell: We originally wanted to get LAMENT THE COMMON BONES out earlier, but the contracted work for BEFORE had to come first, and we decided to do one more really ripping edit on it, which took about 6 weeks. But that is nearly complete and then we’ll start to look at a cover and a release date for Abbott and Lowell #5. We could see it out in May/June for summer vacation reading.

Appearances: Bouchercon 2017 is coming up in Toronto this October and Jen is already registered to be there to represent us as separate and joint authors. I know some of our readers are already planning to come (Kathy... are you registered yet?). For any of our readers who are avid mystery and thriller readers and would love to interact with their favourite authors, there are already 1100 people signed up, over half of which are authors. So, if you love Louise Penny, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Meagan Abbott, Kelley Armstrong and many, many more, it’s a great trip to an amazing city with a chance to meet well-known authors and even discover some new ones. As an added bonus, for the Americans in the crowd, the low Canadian dollar makes it a cheap trip for you! Want more information? It’s all right here: Bouchercon 2017.

See you next week when we get back into the swing of regular blogging!

Cover Reveal for BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE!

We're not blogging right now because Ann and I are in the middle of edits for book 2 in the FBI K-9s series, BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE. But we just got the green light to show off the brand new cover for it, so we had to stop to show off the pretty. Isn't it amazing?

In this powerful K-9 crime thriller, FBI Special Agent Meg Jennings and her trusted
search-and-rescue Labrador, Hawk, must race against the clock before a diabolical killer strikes again…
Somewhere in the Washington, D.C., area, a woman lies helpless in a box. Beneath the earth. Barely breathing. Buried alive. In Quantico, the FBI receives a coded message from the woman’s abductor. He wants to play a game with them: decipher the clues, find the grave, save the girl. The FBI’s top cryptanalysts crack the code, and Special Agent Meg Jennings and her K-9 partner, Hawk, scramble to follow a trail of false leads to the scene of the crime. By the time they solve the puzzle, it’s too late. But the killer’s game is far from over . . .
Soon another message arrives. Another victim is taken, and the deadly pattern is repeated—again and again. Each kidnapping triggers another desperate race against time, each with the possibility of another senseless death. That’s when Meg decides to try something drastic. Break the Bureau’s protocol. Bring in her brilliant sister, Cara, a genius at word games, to decipher the kidnapper’s twisted clues. Meg knows she’s risking her career to do it, but she’s determined not to let one more person die under her and Hawk’s watch. If the plan fails, it could bite them in the end. And if it leads to the killer, it could bury them forever . . .

BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE releases September 26, 2017!

K-9 Breeds: Beagles and Pit Bulls

In our last post on K-9 breeds, we’re going to look at two breeds that most people don’t think of when discussing working dogs. But they should because they are hardworking, intelligent, and fill some unique roles.

Beagles: Due to their size, speed and keen sense of smell, beagles were originally bred for tracking hare and rabbits as part of the equestrian hunt. In modern times, their smaller size makes them excellent candidates for working indoors and especially around people. They are used for scent detection, primarily in airports and at borders, searching for prohibited imports, currency, and drugs. In fact, the Beagle Brigade is an important part of the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Beagles are also notable among K-9s as having the ability to actually categorize smells, meaning they can differentiate between restricted (such as certain foodstuffs) vs. non-restricted items.

Pit Bulls: Not an actual breed, pit bulls are a type of dog including the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and the American Bulldog. Often maligned, pit bulls are safely and effectively used currently in select police departments. Rather than spending up to $20-40,000 on a trained German shepherd, organizations like Animal Farm Foundation sponsor the of rescue pit bulls from shelters and help train them to be dependable K-9s. These high energy, very trainable dogs are used for patrol, drug and explosive detection, search-and-rescue, and tracking. They are also used as ambassadors between police and civilians.

Ann and I are going to take a few weeks off to enjoy the holidays and work on our edits of BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE (FBI K-9s book2). The best of the holiday season to you and your family, and we’ll see you in the new year!

Photo credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Milwaukee Police Department

Want to join Jen’s newsletter to stay up to date on the latest publishing news and exclusive early content like cover reveals (two of which will be coming early in the new year)? Then sign up at the bottom of the home page! https://jenjdanna.com/

LONE WOLF is now out! Don’t miss this chance to start a great new series. It also makes a fantastic holiday gift for the dog or mystery/thriller lover in your life! You can find it as these fine retailers in hardcover, eBook and audiobook formats: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk, Chapters/Indigo, B&N, BAM, IndieBound, Target, Walmart, Hudson Booksellers.

K-9 Breeds: German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois

Last week on the blog we started to look at some of the canine breeds used by law enforcement and search-and-rescue groups as their working dogs. Today, we’re continuing on with the topic, looking at the two types of dogs best known as ‘police’ dogs, namely German shepherds and their close cousin, the Belgian Malinois.

German Shepherds: Dating back to 1899, the breed was originally developed to herd sheep. But owners quickly noticed that these dogs were notable for their strength, intelligence, teachability, and obedience, so they were further bred and trained into specialized roles. German shepherds are known for their keen sense of smell and the ability to work amid distractions. In the world of modern law enforcement, they are the breed taking on the most diverse roles, including drug and explosives detection, tracking, patrol, apprehension, search-and-rescue, and cadaver detection.

Belgian Malinois: Also known as the Belgian shepherd, these dogs are slightly smaller and lighter than German shepherds. When used in the Middle East and other hot climates, they tend to be less prone to heat stroke. They are extremely intelligent, high energy dogs, and are currently the K-9 of choice for the secret service to guard the White House. As working K-9s, they are used for drug, explosives and arson detection, tracking, patrol, apprehension, search-and-rescue, and retrieving.

Next week, in our final installment, we’ll be looking at the beagle and bully breeds and their special roles in keeping citizens safe.

Photo credit: Gomagoti and Eric Wedin

Want to join Jen’s newsletter to stay up to date on the latest publishing news and exclusive early content like cover reveals (two of which will be coming early in the new year)? Then sign up at the bottom of the home page! https://jenjdanna.com/

LONE WOLF is now out! Don’t miss this chance to start a great new series. It also makes a fantastic holiday gift for the dog or mystery/thriller lover in your life! You can find it as these fine retailers in hardcover, ebook and audiobook formats: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk, Chapters/Indigo, B&N, BAM, IndieBound, Target, Walmart, Hudson Booksellers.

**Right now the eBook is specially priced at $2.99 until January 1, 2017. Want to try a new series but are concerned with the price? This is your time to get the book at a great sale price. But one for yourself or give it as a gift!**

K-9 Breeds: Labrador Retrievers and Bloodhounds

Three weeks ago, we shone a spotlight on Bretagne, the last known surviving 9/11 search-and-rescue dog, who died this past year. This week on the blog, we’re going to start a series of posts about typical (and some less-than-typical) K-9 dog breeds, starting with Bretagne’s retriever family and moving onto a number of other well-known breeds including German shepherds, beagles and pit bull type dogs.

Labrador Retrievers: These dogs are bred in three main colours—black (better known as black Labs), yellow (better known as golden retrievers) and brown (better known as chocolate Labs)—but all three colours are well suited to be working dogs. They are noted for low levels of aggression, therefore they are not used for suspect apprehension or patrol. However, this personality trait makes them extremely suitable as search-and-rescue dogs. Additionally, these dogs have a very strong sense of smell, which is why they were originally used as retrieving dogs during the hunt. In the modern working dog world, that keen sense of smell is used for suspect tracking and arms, drugs, explosives, accelerant, and general object detection. Retrievers are excellent air scent and/or trailing dogs.

Bloodhounds: Bloodhounds were originally bred for hunting, but they became one of the oldest breeds to be used in police work. Since the Middle Ages, these dogs have been renowned for their skill in human tracking. Many find them comical looking, but their physiology actually aids in their work since their floppy ears and loose skin help in scent gathering. They are able to follow days-old scent over long distances, which makes them useful while tracking suspects, lost children, and missing pets. Bloodhounds can be willful and sometimes difficult to train, but a trained bloodhound is a huge boon to any law enforcement agency or search-and-rescue group fortunate enough to have one.

Next week, we’ll be back with what most people recognize as a police dog—the German shepherd and it’s close relative, the Belgian Malinois.

Photo credit: Stannate and John Leslie

Want to join Jen’s newsletter to stay up to date on the latest publishing news and exclusive early content like cover reveals (two of which will be coming early in the new year)? Then sign up at the bottom of the home page at https://jenjdanna.com/!

LONE WOLF is now out! Don’t miss this chance to start a great new series. It also makes a fantastic holiday gift for the dog or mystery/thriller lover in your life! You can find it as these fine retailers in hardcover, ebook and audiobook formats: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk, Chapters/Indigo, B&N, BAM, IndieBound, Target, Walmart, Hudson Booksellers.

LONE WOLF is out!

LONE WOLF releases today! *throws confetti* It feels like it’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally here: book 1 in the FBI K-9s series is out!

So what is LONE WOLF all about?

In the first book in a thrilling new series, FBI Special Agent Meg Jennings and Hawk, her loyal search-and-rescue Labrador, must race against time as they zero in on one of the deadliest killers in the country . . . 

Meg and Hawk are part of the FBI’s elite K-9 unit. Hawk can sniff out bodies anywhere—living or dead—whether it’s tracking a criminal or finding a missing person. When a bomb rips apart a government building on the National Mall in Washington D.C., it takes all of the team’s extensive search-and-rescue training to locate and save the workers and visitors buried beneath the rubble. 

But even as the duo are hailed as heroes, a mad bomber remains at large, striking terror across the Eastern seaboard in a ruthless pursuit of retribution. As more bombs are detonated and the body count escalates, Meg and Hawk are brought in to a task force dedicated to stopping the unseen killer. But when the attacks spiral wide and any number of locations could be the next target, it will come down to a battle of wits and survival skills between Meg, Hawk, and the bomber they’re tracking to rescue a nation from the brink of chaos.


You can find LONE WOLF at the following fine retailers in hardcover, ebook and audiobook formats: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk, Chapters/Indigo, B&N, BAM, IndieBound, Target, Walmart, Hudson Booksellers


What are people saying about LONE WOLF? Here is just a taste of some of the reviews out there:

RT Book Reviews: "An exciting angle for genre fans." 4 stars - Book Review: LONE WOLF

Publishers Weekly: "wonderfully readable series launch" - Fiction Book Review: LONE WOLF

Steph's Book Blog: "a fantastic new series". Book Review: LONE WOLF

CrimeBookJunkie: "This book was highly emotive, gripping, intense and full of suspense from the beginning straight on through to the end!  Would I recommend it?  OMFG that is a no brainer!  Hell yeah, I would!! I loved it so much, it is my current #BookOfTheMonth!" 5 stars

Not a Book Snob: "I  enjoyed Lone Wolf tremendously, so much in fact that I was up way past my bedtime reading." - Book Review: LONE WOLF

The Reading Room: "The characters are fresh and interesting including the canine ones, the plot is all too plausible in our world today, and the story unfolds in a chilling atmosphere of well-measured suspense." Book Review: LONE WOLF

Bibliophile Book Club: "Pretty much full of action from the outset, I found myself having trouble putting it down. I didn’t want to stop reading it once I started, which is always a good thing." Book Review: LONE WOLF


To celebrate LONE WOLF’s release, I held a launch event on the weekend at our incredible local bookstore, A Different Drummer. Here are a few pictures from the event.

Many thanks to the wonderful team at Kensington including Esi Sogah, our new editor, Morgan Elwell, our publicist, Kimberly Richardson, digital sales, Lauren Jernigan, social media specialist, Robin Cook, our production editor, and the rest of the Kensington team, from the art department all the way up to president Steven Zacharius. We've felt incredibly supported and the team has bent over backward at every step. Also, big thanks to Peter Senftleben, our original editor who bought the series as a three-book deal. He was a major force behind LONE WOLF, and the book wouldn't have been the same without him. He's recently moved on to a new publishing house, but has left us in Esi's excellent hands and we hope to continue to do him proud as we move forward in the series.

So, please join Ann and I in celebrating the birth of a new book and new series, and in welcoming Meg Jennings and Hawk. The fun is only just beginning!


We’re only a week out from the official release of LONE WOLF, so Ann and I wanted to release a #TuesdayTeaser of the first three chapters of the novel. Like what you read and want to have the entire book ready for instant gratification on release day? You can place your order at any of these fine retailers: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk, Chapters/Indigo, B&N, BAM, IndieBound, Target, Walmart, Hudson Booksellers.

You can find the first three chapters below. Happy reading!

I’m happy to celebrate the official launch of LONE WOLF this coming Saturday, November 26th at A Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Ontario at 4pm. In the area and want to get a copy of the book days before it’s officially available at any other retailer? Then come on out! I’d be thrilled to see you!

Canine Highlight – 9/11’s Bretagne

On September 11, 2001, Bretagne—pronounced by her handler Denise Corliss as ‘Brittany’—and her handler were one of 300 search-and-rescue teams that arrived immediately following the disaster. After Corliss rescued the golden retriever, she and Bretange trained twenty to thirty hours a week to become members of Texas Task Force One (TF-1), one of twenty-eight federal teams that work under FEMA’s Urban Search-and-Rescue System. Even though they had been members of TF-1 for a year by that point, in an amazing trial by fire, 9/11 was Bretagne’s first outing as a search-and-rescue dog. She and Corliss were on-site for nearly two weeks as the operation began as a rescue, and then inevitably morphed into a recovery. Completing gruelling twelve-hour shifts every day, the dogs often worked to exhaustion, many of them requiring IV fluids because of the conditions and effort required. Depression caused by the lack of live survivors is a common problem for search-and-rescue dogs, and was a significant problem during 9/11 since the last survivor was pulled from the rubble just twenty-seven hours after the attack. During the days and weeks that followed, only the dead were found. In an effort to keep the spirits of the dogs up, emergency workers hid in the rubble for the dogs to ‘find’.

Bretagne was not only a search-and-rescue dog during the 9/11 operations, she also worked as an impromptu therapy dog. One day, during their shift, Bretagne noticed a devastated fireman slumped on the ground. Ignoring Corliss’s commands to return, Bretagne went to the man, lay down beside him and put her head in his lap. Years later, Bretagne and the same fireman were reunited at a remembrance service and he remembered her and how crucial her act of comfort had been that day.

Bretagne worked for another seven years with Corliss as part of TF-1 and was involved in searches that followed Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Even after she retired from search-and-rescue at ten years of age, she continued her work as a therapy dog, working with learning disabled children at a local elementary school as a reading buddy.

At the time of her death from kidney failure on June 6, 2016, Bretagne was the last known surviving search-and-rescue dog from Ground Zero. Active right up to her final days, Bretange was just two months shy of her seventeenth birthday, an incredible age for a dog who’d worked in disaster sites known for their toxicity. Studied for her entire life for the impact of 9/11 pollutants, Bretagne’s last gift was a medical screening and necropsy at Texas A&M Veterinary School. Months before, as a sign of appreciation and to celebrate her sixteenth birthday, BarkPost.com hosted Corliss and Bretagne in New York City, putting them up at a luxury hotel, showering the dog with toys and cake, and even presenting her with the canine equivalent of the key to the city, the Bone of the Dog Park to Hudson River Park.

Photo credit: Denise Corliss and Andrea Booher/FEMA

The Brains Behind the Dog

In the past few weeks, we’ve talked about working dogs—the roles of dogs, both historical and modern, search-and-rescue dogs and the kind of searches they perform, the role of the canine nose, and search patterns. But while we’ve been very focused on the dogs, we’ve omitted any discussion of a crucial partner in these tasks: the handler.

The handler and dog make up a bonded team. The dog is the nose, but the handler is the brains of the operation. Remember last week when we talked about the challenges of searches due to terrain, or heating and cooling cycles? It’s the handler who acts as the strategist, figuring out how to stack the deck in the dog’s favour to improve the odds that the dog is successful. No matter how good the dog is, if the handler starts him in the wrong location, he’ll never catch the first trace of scent and will never find the person or object he’s searching for. It’s up to the handler to take all the conditions and the location into account, and then let the dog run the search with minimal interference. In the event that the search is not successful, it is up to the handler to somehow reward the dog so that no search day ends in failure.

But we’re not just talking about search-and-rescue handlers. We’re also talking about handlers of police, therapy, and military dogs. It takes a special kind of person to be a successful handler. Most of these men and women live with their dog 24/7, many of them in multi-dog homes. They don’t kennel the dog at the end of a police shift; the dog comes home with them and lives with their family. This kind of constant presence helps establish an initial bond, and then keeps it vital throughout the whole partnership. To reinforce this bond, many K-9s are only fed by their handlers. Food is used to reinforce successful training and proper behavior, and can be the dog’s entire source of nutrition. This also means that training doesn’t only happen at the beginning of the dog’s working life; it continues every day, throughout the day, for their entire working career. Many police and military handlers permanently adopt their K-9 once the dog retires into civilian life. A new working K-9 may then come into the mix, but the first partner is rarely discarded. The bond is that strong. In our upcoming release, LONE WOLF, the relationship between FBI handler Meg Jennings, and her black Lab, Hawk, is the centerpiece of the story. If woman and dog are not in perfect harmony, the killer in the story can’t be caught.

My writing partner Ann is a handler herself. Pictured above with her pit bull, Kane, they are a therapy team, making regular visits to  domestic violence shelters and adult day care facilities. In addition, they are training right now in competitive nosework and have already passed odor recognition tests.

So, the next time you see a working dog, remember the man or woman standing at the other end of that leash. It’s their dedication and bond with the dog that ultimately allows that team to be successful.

Photo credit: Ann Vanderlaan

Following The Scent Trail

Last week we talked about the canine nose and how both its architecture and receptors make it the perfect search tool. Today we’re going to talk about some of the difficulties dogs and their handlers have to overcome while they are working.

Scent: Scent particles emanate from everything—people, animals, and objects. In still air and away from walls and upright surfaces, scent radiates evenly from the source, the scent particles being more concentrated near the person or item and then diffusing outward, the concentration slowly falling as the scent moves outward. But unless the dog is searching in an area with minimal air currents and no heating, this kind of even diffusion is rare. Both indoors and outdoors, air is always moving and this greatly affects the dispersal of scent.

Scent Cones: In the presence of air movement, scent moves along the direction of the current, diffusing outward as it progresses until it encounters an upright surface. As a result, an ever-widening cone of scent is blown away from the origin point. Search-and-rescue dogs use this scent cone to zero in on what they are searching for.

Basic search patterns: Consider the scenario of a search-and-rescue air scenting dog who is searching for a lost child. If lucky, the parents of the child will be able to provide a piece of clothing that the dog can use to identify the child. The dog will do a heads-up search of the area, looking for any trace of that particular odor. When the dog finds the scent, he will start a pattern of trying to narrow down the scent cone, working across the wide end of the cone until he runs out of scent. Then he will turn around and run back through the cone until he runs out the other side. He will then move upwind and repeat the process. With each progressive pass through the cone, the dog will move in the direction of the stronger scent, narrowing the search cone. In the end, the dog will work its way to the lost child, the origin of the scent.

Sounds straight forward, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, in the real world, it’s rarely that easy for a number of reasons:

Air currents: Air currents blow scent mainly in one direction. This can be an advantage as the current can spread the scent a long way in the direction of the prevailing wind. Unfortunately, if dogs are coming into the search area from upwind, they are essentially nose blind until they are practically on top of the subject.

Obstacles: Obstacles can play havoc with air currents, causing a nearly straight stream of scent to pool into the dead space behind or in front of the obstacle and create a turbulent cycle. Air then coming out of that cycle could be moving in any direction, taking the scent trail with it. This makes it hard for the dog to correctly identify where the scent is coming from since he may catch the edge of an eddy, try to find the scent cone, but then lose the scent entirely as it eddies away from him.

Obstacles can also cause a chimney effect, pushing the air current high over a building or forest line so the scent finally falls to the dog’s level hundreds of feet from the source and is nearly impossible to track.

Heating and cooling: Hot air rises and cool air falls. As a result, typical daytime heating causes air currents to rise, while nighttime cooling causes them to fall. If a dog is searching a valley for a victim, the handler has to be aware of the heating and cooling patterns, initiating a late afternoon search on the hilltop above the valley. During the cooler early morning, the handler would start the search at the bottom of the valley to maximize the dog’s chance of finding the edge of the scent cone.

Terrain: In a perfect world, a search would take place in a flat field with no boulders or trees to disrupt the scent cone. But that’s not how the real world works. There are multilevel hills and valleys, rocks and trees, buildings, roads and bridges. And all of those can disrupt the scent cone making what might have been a straightforward search into a significant challenge.

Search-and-rescue dogs often make these searches look easy, but it’s intuitive strategizing by the handler and hours and hours of training by the dogs that let these teams carry off their job so smoothly. We’ve talked a lot about the dog half of a search-and-rescue team, but what about the handlers? We’ll be back next week so look at the special kind of people who make up the human side of these amazing teams.

Photo credit: Ramón Peco, Daryl James, Kristina D.C. Hoeppner, Michael Lehenbauer, and Steve.

The Canine Nose Knows

Last week, we talked about different types of search-and-rescue dogs and their different skills and searching techniques. Before we start to look at the difficulties of finding a victim in the real world, it might be useful to look at the amazing capabilities of these animals. How can a bloodhound sense a few scent molecules and use that to find a lost child? Or how can a Labrador catch a single trace of a victim buried in an avalanche or from vast distances away? The answer is actually quite simple—the canine nose.

The key to a dog’s ability to smell is twofold—the number of olfactory receptors and the architecture of the nose. Dogs have approximately 220 million receptors, compared to our own 5 million. This allows them to detect odors 100,000 times less concentrated than humans. To manage this kind of sensory overload, twelve percent of the canine brain is dedicated to smell; by comparison, humans use one percent of their brain for the same purpose. A dog’s olfactory receptors even have the infrared capability to literally smell heat. The best way to sum it up is that dogs smell like humans see: individual smells, not an overall smell (conversely, humans smell like dogs see). Where a human smells chicken soup, a dog detects cooked chicken, onions, rice, herbs and spices.

Sniffing for a dog is not actually part of their normal breathing pattern; instead it is a series of short inhalations and exhalations. Air is forced upward into the olfactory recess (pictured above in khaki), separate from the main respiratory airflow path. Due to the recessed positioning and complex folds, scent molecules are not washed out upon exhalation which allows for a concentration of scent over time. Molecules are absorbed into the mucous membranes of the olfactory recess and come in contact with the receptor neurons, which, in turn, carry the signal to the brain. An additional special aspect of canine olfaction is the ability to smell in stereo. This allows them to directionally work a scent cone and to distinguish individual smells.

Next week we’re going to look at how dogs use their amazing olfactory sense to be able to follow scent through some of the hardest of terrains, all while being confounded by air currents, turbulence, daytime heating, nighttime cooling, water, and other obstacles.

Photo credit: Rusty Clark and B.A. Craven et al

Search-and Rescue Dogs

Last week, we looked at modern working dogs and all the ways they help and protect us. Today and over the upcoming weeks, we’re going to focus in on a particular type of modern dog—the search-and-rescue dog—along with its handler.

As previously mentioned, search-and-rescue dogs are especially useful in situations where a person is missing in a large or especially hazardous area. Situations involving hikers lost in the woods or on mountains, hurricane victims, or the elderly or small children who have wandered away from home would all benefit from the amazing scenting abilities of search-and-rescue dogs.

We’ve all seen them on the news: dogs wearing bright-coloured vests climbing over collapsed buildings or running through a field or forest, searching for the lost. But how are they able to find that sole person in such a large or complex area? In the end, it all comes down to skin cells. Without our knowledge, we humans shed about 40,000 skin cells each minute, and they fall around us like a cloud, either settling to the ground around us if the air is still, or they’re caught on the downstream wind to travel significant distances. And it’s not just the skin cells dogs can smell—it’s the scent of perspiration, soap and skin care products, bacteria/fungus, hormones, and—in those less fortunate—decomposition. Dogs follow these scents to find the source that produces them. Scents come off any subject or object in a cone following the prevailing wind, i.e. narrow at the source and expanding outward in a scent cone until it dissipates or is disrupted by barriers like walls or cliffs that cause the odor to swirl and eddy. A dog’s search pattern depends on finding part of the cone and using its nose and training to locate the concentrated source.

Finding the first part of the trail can sometimes take considerable time and patience. There are three main types of scenting methods and most dogs favour one technique:

Air-scenting dogs:

  • A heads-up search, often off lead.
  • Identify the smell of any human in the area and follow the concentrating scent as the dog gets closer to the target.
  • Can cover large areas during the day or night.
  • Does not need a track to follow or a specific starting point.

Tracking dogs:

  • Nose-down search, usually on lead.
  • The dog follows a specific track of disturbance over land.
  • Follow the exact track of a specific scent, even if the target doubles back. On a mountain trail a tracking dog would follow the ascending odor trail around every switchback, even if it detected fresher odor blowing down the mountainside.

Trailing dogs:

  • A combination of air-scenting and tracking.
  • Follows a specific scent.
  • On-lead searches, using partially head-up air scenting and head-down tracking techniques.
  • Will follow the scent pool off the trail. On the mountain trail mentioned previously, the trailing dog would likely cut across switchbacks if it detected fresher odor blowing down the mountainside.

But how can they follow a scent over hills and through valleys, around rocks and through buildings? Next week we’ll look at the difficulties of tracking scent. These skilled dog and handler partnerships make it look easy, but it’s considerably harder than that!

There’s still time to win a free copy of LONE WOLF! Our publishing house, Kensington, is very generously giving away 25 copies before LONE WOLF’s November 29th release. For your chance to enter by October 19th, follow the link here: http://bit.ly/2dZYadJ. Not a Goodreads member? Sign-up is easy and free! Good luck!

Photo credit: Cleanboot and Virginia State Parks

Modern Working Dogs

Over the past few blog posts, we’ve talked about the history of working dogs and even the career of one specific WWI hero. Today we’re going to talk about modern working dogs, briefly looking at some of the crucial jobs they do today. Then, in the future, we’ll look at these jobs in more detail.

Military K-9s: Dogs have become a day-to-day part of battalion life for many of the services. They are used for patrol/sentry duty, explosives detection, drug detection, finding fallen soldiers, and signaling enemy approach. They also fulfill an important role as therapy dogs.

Police K-9s: Most modern police dogs are trained for one task such as search-and-rescue, detection of explosives, drugs, arson, or electronics, patrol, and cadaver detection. A very few dogs cross-train; for example search-and-rescue dogs who also do tracking. Detection dogs (drug, arson, electronic, explosives, etc.) are generally trained in just a single odor category, but within this one area, they learn to recognize hundreds of related scents.

Search-and-Rescue (SAR) K-9s: Some of these dogs come from official groups (e.g., law enforcement), but many SAR teams are volunteers who are part of state or national SAR groups. SAR dogs are involved in finding anyone from lost children or hikers, to drowning victims, to victims of natural disasters or terrorist attacks. These dogs include those trained to air scent, as well as dedicated tracking dogs. More on that next week.

Therapy K-9s: Therapy dogs are selected based upon temperament, appearance, and aptitude. Some dogs are trained to be comfort animals for the elderly, the sick, victims of domestic violence, or for stressed-out university students—my own university has dogs brought in for this purpose during exams, and Ann has Kane,  a working therapy dog who visits an AIDS hospice, a domestic violence shelter, and an adult day care facility. Therapy dogs must be tolerant of other animals on-site—other therapy or service animals, pets, etc.—and be willing to endure touches or hugs from total strangers.

Service K-9s: Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for their owners and strangers. Cancer detection dogs in medical facilities can detect traces of cancer in patients long before diagnostic tests are accurate. Diabetes or epilepsy dogs are trained to detect low blood sugar levels or impending epileptic seizures so they can alert the owner or a caretaker to get help if the owner is unable to respond. Hearing assist service dogs are trained to alert owners to doorbells and ringing cell phones. PTSD dogs can recognize moments of stress in their owners and can often avert that reaction by their presence and “covering their 6”.

As you can see, these dogs are dedicated, incredibly smart, well-trained animals, who can make life and death decisions and real-time differences for their owners and the public on a daily basis. Next week, we’re going to start looking more at search-and-rescue teams, just like Meg Jennings and her black lab, Hawk, in our upcoming release LONE WOLF.

Speaking of LONE WOLF, our publishing house, Kensington, is very generously giving away 25 copies before LONE WOLF’s November 29th release. For your chance to enter the October 12 – 19th giveaway, follow the link here: http://bit.ly/2dZYadJ. Not a Goodreads member? Sign-up is easy and free! Good luck!

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons and Ann Vanderlaan